Thursday, April 15, 2010


Most of the people you know on any level beyond the mere familiarity of acquaintance are interested in outcome. Not surprisingly then, many of these individuals are writers or engage in some form of art whether it is photography, ceramics, music (which surely includes dance), or acting. Others, no strangers to reading and art, pursue their quest for outcome as scholars, scientists, attorneys, community activists. Only this morning one such friend spoke to you of his pursuit for outcome as it related to translations, his energy effervescing behind his need to get down his espresso and bridge the distance between the coffee shop where you breakfasted and the university where his class was scheduled for 9:30. Another such friend had no class but was interested in getting to his lab where he was pursuing a project that involved mud, a project that literally had his whiskers twitching.

It is your observation that those who are not interested directly in tracking outcomes born of their own projects are nevertheless interested in the outcome of baseball games, competitive celebrity-wannabe shows, even elections. Some of us like to look to outcomes as portents of extensive if not massive future behavior. In other words, outcomes as building blocks for additional building blocks. At this moment, the political climate and a certain N-sampling of past history suggest that after Barack Obama's decisive victory, he is likely to lose ground in the forthcoming bi-election. You even recall your hard-nosed political science instructor pronouncing: "The party that wins the election loses the bi-election."

You also notice more so now than you did as an undergraduate the way bias invades expectations (and hopes) related to outcomes. It is a fact that there have been six special congressional elections since Barack Obama's inauguration as POTUS, each of these won handily by a Democrat. This aggregate result at least stands as a rebuke to the general view that the 2010 elections will be seriously bad news for the Democratic Party and President Obama. We are all of us, of course, our expectations of outcome set on high flame, awaiting the actual results.

Story is your focus in these vagrant paragraphs. By definition and convention, story is an outcome in which contrary agendas clash, where behavior and sometimes ingenuity trump logic, and where more experienced writers need to discover again that the most emotionally laden and satisfying outcomes have their origins in listening to the characters they have created.

Take the leap with me to late sixteenth century Prague, where Rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel created a creature out of mud,a golem, brought him to life by inscribing the Hebrew word for truth on the creature's head, then instructed the creature to defend the Jewish community against a virulent wave of anti-Semitism. After the Golem had completed its mission, the Rabbi deleted the first letter of the Hebrew word for truth from its head, leaving the word met, which is Hebrew for death, whereupon the golem crumbled to the clay from which it came. This story is presented as legend just as, later, the invention of a story about a particular Robin of Locksley morphed into Robin Hood, each tale having an outcome that at least temporarily provided satisfaction and perhaps even inspiration to the listener. Farther back in time came the story of The Iliad which, so far as we know, may have happened exactly as described in the epic poem of the Homer poets, giving at least an accurate picture of what societies were like at one time and also providing some an inspiration for survival and perseverance and observation of then prevalent custom.

Outcomes are risky business in general; no one can be completely happy with them. If they are too bright and cheerful, they are seen as bubbly optimism. If they are as laden with implication as, say, Jean-Paul Sartre's No Exit, they may be seen as overly grim, cynical reflections on such well-trod themes as The Meaning of Life. Outcomes have led Barnaby Conrad to observe (more than once, alas) that stories about animals are fated to unhappy endings. Today, while making that observation in relation to Madison, a much loved gray parrot who lost out to a marauding rat, that human life was similarly targeted.

And yet we persist in pursuing human affairs, even ones we consider relatively dumb, drawn about the metaphorical camp fire of the oral tale or the reading lamp of the solitary reader in the sure knowledge that the behavior of the invented individuals is of greater significance than the final outcome. In the end, we all of us, as Jack London's character did in "To Build a Fire," run out of matches. A heavy collection of snow on a branch above us melts from the fire we have created, causing it to drop precipitously, extinguishing the fire we labored to create. Speaking of London, he true enough gave us "To Build a Fire," but he also gave us a shot at a way out with another, lesser known story, "A Loss of Face."

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